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Portuguese cattle farmers desperately wait for rain

Antonio Granadeiro, a cattle farmer who has already lost 20 cows this year, surveys with sadness the fields of his ranch in Alentejo in central Portugal, which have yellowed from the lack of rain.

“I have never seen a drought like this,” he says as cows graze nearby at his farm near the village of Alpalhao, about 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the Spanish border.

“I check the weather forecast every day hoping it will finally rain but I am despairing,” the 64-year-old adds as he chain-smokes under a blazing sun.

“Look!” Granadeiro says, pointing to the dry bed of the Figueiro River, a tributary of the Tagus which runs through his land.

“I have never seen that. Not a drop of water!”

As in the Alentejo region, the rest of Portugal is enduring “extreme” or “severe” drought conditions, according to the national weather service.

Average temperatures in October were the highest they have been since 1931, when comparable records started being kept.

With no water in the river, Granadeiro has had to bring water for his roughly 800 cows by tanker trucks.

“But my main worry is feeding my animals. I bought hay to last until February. But they have almost run out,” he says.

– ‘Completely different year’ –

The cows Granadeiro has lost since the end of the summer succumbed to diseases picked up from ticks.

“The land is dry but the ticks don’t die and they continue to spread diseases,” he says.

A neighbouring farmer has similar complaints.

“This is a completely different year! We are wearing T-shirts. Normally at this time of the year, we are much more covered up,” Joao Curvo says.

“Look at these olives — Many matured at the beginning of October when normally this happens at the end of November, but it’s not the case for others.”

To save his harvest he had to collect his olives much earlier than normal, using a machine that shakes the branches to make mature olives fall onto a net spread under the trees.

But since not all olives matured early, he will have to repeat the process or use a stick to shake the branches and pick the olives by hand from the ground.

“This is going to take us double the time,” Curvo says.

The drought conditions have continued into November, especially in the south of the country where some water reservoirs are at less than 20 percent of their storage capacity.

– ‘Dramatic situation’ –

Bishops have called on the faithful to pray for rain while the government has rolled out a media campaign urging people to conserve water.

“The problem of this drought is that it will have repercussions beyond this year,” says Fremelinda Carvalho, the president of the farmers’ association of Portalegre in central Portugal.

“Last year there was already very little rain. The water reserves are disappearing,” she said, adding that it would have to rain heavily for several months for water levels to return to normal.

“It’s a dramatic situation. I don’t even dare imagine that it doesn’t rain in the coming days.”

The drought has also disrupted the water supply for urban residents.

Officials in Viseu, a city of about 100,000 people about 300 kilometres north of Lisbon, have hired tanker trucks to bring water from a distant dam to the one that supplies water to their city, which is running low.